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Editorial | Our View

Much to like in TMT plan

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That construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope could proceed on Mauna Kea was never truly in question, if the rule of law is to prevail in the state of Hawaii. But the inevitability of Gov. David Ige’s statement about development of the planet’s largest telescope on a Hawaii island peak considered sacred in traditional Native Hawaiian culture does not dilute the importance of his intervention, to both sides of this long-standing and ongoing dispute.

As expected, the governor reaffirmed that the international consortium building the telescope on state land leased by the University of Hawaii had gone through all the appropriate steps over the past seven years to obtain the necessary approvals to build. 

Those approvals are subject to ongoing litigation and the courts will ultimately have their say. 

In the meantime, TMT?has the right to proceed with construction. Ige was correct to fully articulate that fact and to assure the consortium that the state government supports and will enforce TMT’s right to build.

But also embedded in the governor’s assessment of the situation, which came after construction was delayed for nearly two months and he sought information from many supporters and opponents of the project, are numerous conditions that, if met, will give far greater weight to concerns expressed by Native Hawaiian activists and environmentalists than in the past.

Nonetheless, some leaders of the opposition, who call themselves Mauna Kea’s protectors and have seen members arrested in a construction blockade that galvanized attention around the world and led to telescope work being postponed, have dismissed Ige’s entreaties as mere words lacking real substance. They vowed to continue their protests and urged Native Hawaiians to boycott Ige’s efforts to engage all sides toward a lasting compromise. 

This quick instinct to boycott rather than to participate is mistaken and misguided. The opposition leaders owe it to their fellow protesters and followers to capitalize on this opportunity, not ignore it. Moreover, by refusing to engage, they risk diminishing the moral authority they have derived from the disciplined, nonviolent way they have conducted their protests so far. 

There is substance in the governor’s plan, and the protesters should recognize it. He revealed personal empathy for the protesters’ concerns that transcends mere words.

“It is my own belief that the activities of Native Hawaiians, and of our scientists, to seek knowledge and to explore our relationship with our cosmos and its creation can and should co-exist on the mountain,” Ige said — and he is right about that. “What has instead happened is that science has received most of the attention and it has gotten way ahead of culture in our work on the mountain. The proper balance between the two has been lost.”

That seems an overstatement. For all the claims of widespread desecration at the sacred summit, there has been little physical evidence offered.

Some of Ige’s conditions regarding future development and management by the TMT group and the UH raise red flags about public access on state land. This alone signals how much momentum the protesters have developed with influential powerbrokers such as Ige. They would be unwise to squander it by failing to engage fully in the process moving forward.

Among Ige’s recommendations to which all parties should readily agree are that support for TMT should not be a requirement to serve on a new advisory council the state is forming; that the university voluntarily return to full Department of Land and Natural Resources jurisdiction all Mauna Kea land not specifically needed for astronomy; that UH reduce the length of its lease extension, to ensure that stewardship of the mountain is revisited in a timely fashion; that UH ensures full use of its telescope time; and that UH must decommission at least 25 percent of the existing telescopes before TMT becomes operational.

More problematic, and requiring far greater explanation from Ige and more community input about potential pitfalls, are the governor’s expectations that “non-cultural access” to the mountain be strictly curtailed — no more recreational trips by Big Island folks to slide in the snow? — and that UH formally and legally bind itself to the commitment that the TMT?site is the last area on the mountain where a telescope project “will be contemplated or sought.” 

While it is widely agreed that Mauna Kea’s astronomical footprint should not grow unfettered and that telescopes should be removed as they become obsolete, imposing such an ultimatum on the scientific community absent knowledge of future needs and innovations serves the protesters, but not science. Where is the balance there?

There is no doubt that the saga of Mauna Kea and Native Hawaiian activists’ efforts to preserve it as a sacred site have intensified over the past few years, and especially over the past few months. Most people in Hawaii, and many throughout the world, have a fuller and better understanding of its spiritual significance to Native Hawaiians who follow traditional cultural practices. 

That is all to the good. But as Ige rightly acknowledged in his statement, his role as governor is to represent all of the people of Hawaii. Hawaii does not have a state religion. Mauna Kea is a mountain held by the state government to advance the public interest, which must include public access, whether one considers the summit sacred or not.

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